When I met Denise (not her real name), we were a couple of pot-addled college kids looking for an identity other than the ones we were given at birth. She was born a Methodist but wouldn't be caught dead in a church unless someone was getting married or buried. The last act of blatant Judaism I myself had committed was my bar mitzvah, and from there it was a steep downhill slope into pre-Leninist Marxism.
I had always favored non-Jewish women, and Denise was as WASP-y as it got. Religion? We didn't need no stinkin' religion! We had friends. We had weed. And best of all, we had each other. Nothing else mattered.
We were young when we tied the knot in a one-minute, 57-second "ceremony," in front of a justice of the peace in a de-sanctified church in a historic district near downtown Dallas (the reception, on the other hand, lasted five hours). I was 22, she had just turned 23, and we were both still undergraduates. The first years were indeed idyllic. Money was tight, but so were we, and we knew our love would conquer all. So what if her parents, who'd grown up dirt poor in the woods of Georgia, were looking at me funny and asking me questions about Judaism I didn't want to go into? We weren't living under their roof, and besides, it wasn't them I'd married, it was Denise.
As far as my side of the family was concerned -- actually, there was no "my side of the family." My family had splintered and blown away to the far ends of the earth when I was just a kid, so all I had left was my dad, who didn't care whom I married as long as I was happy. He loved Denise, Denise loved him, and all was right with the world. So what went wrong? What went wrong was Christmas.
Denise loved Christmas. Not because of the Jesus thing, but because it brought back warm memories of her childhood, of sitting in bathrobes by the fire with Mom, Dad and Big Sister, exchanging gifts, and getting sloshed on mimosas by noon. But for me, Christmas evoked feelings that were just the opposite of warm and fuzzy.
I'd spent my elementary school years -- the mid- to late 1960s -- as the only Jewish kid in a small bedroom community halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. The neighborhood where I lived (my entire world, in other words) was overwhelmingly Southern Baptist, and while my friends' parents tolerated me for most of the year, something about Christmas made them lose their cool. They pitied me for my "outsider" status during such a festive occasion, and more important, they feared for the fate of my immortal soul. Offers to bring me to their churches abounded, and I have no doubt that these people made them with the best of intentions. When those offers were politely rebuffed, however, that's when the mood changed.
Phone calls to my buddies went unreturned. On the playground I found myself, if not shunned, then barely tolerated by the same kids I'd been whooping it up with as recently as Thanksgiving. Finally, one kid confided to me that his folks really didn't want him hanging around with a Jew who had no desire to be saved. I certainly felt like an outcast at the time, and as I came to learn of the Holocaust, and the impact it had not just on my culture but also my own ancestors, I came to feel downright paranoid.
So years later, when Denise's little plastic Christmas tree went up the corner of our apartment, it was not Peace and Goodwill Toward Men that came to mind, but rather, "Pick up the penny, Jewboy!" Suddenly, my sweet, lovely Denise came through no fault of her own to represent a culture that had made my life -- and that of my ancestors -- miserable. As I lay in bed at night, watching through the bedroom doorway the glint of moonlight on the little glass balls hanging from that fake tree, I would ask myself, Is that the wind I hear, or is that my dead relatives whispering, shonda (scandal)? I thought about putting up a menorah or something, just to counteract the bad juju of the Christmas tree, but decided that to do so would be to sell out my atheistic convictions (yes, I was a pompous ass in my 20s).
As time (and Christmases) went by, I lived with it, but not well. And when the time came around to start thinking about having children, it all came bubbling up to the surface. If my kid was going to get Jesus forced on him at school as I had been, I'd like him or her to at least find safe haven under his own roof, thank you very much. Suddenly, all things gentile seemed hideous: the emotional repression, the nonsensical traditions, those annoying Christmas carols! Already tough to be around, I became an even bigger prick. My own atheism be damned, I wanted the kid enrolled in Jewish private school, because (and to this day, this may be the most obnoxious sentence I have ever uttered), "I'll be damned if I'm raising any fuckin' Christians!"
There was of course no kid because Denise soon packed her bags and left me. My first relationship following the divorce was with a Russian woman who, although technically Jewish, was raised under Soviet rule, and therefore was about as religious as I was. Even better, her fiery temper was the polar opposite of Denise's bland WASP-y demeanor. I came close to marrying this perfect woman before I realized that she was a complete shrew.
There is no resolution to this story, no easy answer, because (and maybe this is it) it's not them, it's me. Can a conflicted, agnostic Jew find happiness on either side of the fence? Who knows? Perhaps I'll find a nice Buddhist. Yeah, Buddhists are kinda hot...
In sickness and in health
My husband is sleeping in another room tonight, not an unusual event. Phil is very, very sick, and this is my new reality. But I still don't like the fact that he chooses to go to bed somewhere without me.
Tonight he's coughing so loudly, I wonder if I'll find a dusty lung deposited outside his room tomorrow morning.
Many of you have snoring, coughing, irritating husbands, and it's not such a big, hairy deal. But mine is recuperating from a bone marrow transplant and so ... with every cough I wonder whether I will soon become a widow.
I have a love like the ones in the movies. Not so much Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster, but Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, very "King and I," very much the older, sexy, crazy king falling in love with a younger, yappy chick who gives him "what for." I have actually seen my guy pinch his chin, musing, "She's a puzzlement," as he wanders around our house, trying to figure out whether he wants to kick me to the curb or fuck me. Very dreamy and insane and painful -- and that's even before he fell ill with not one but two rare blood disorders.
I can't believe it's been only two years since he collapsed on our kitchen floor, in the best shape of his life, clad only in a cunning pair of Hugo Boss boxer briefs. Only to be released from the hospital three months later, after having his blood swept clean every day like Keith Richards at his worst. While he was in the hospital suffering from this weird blood disorder, we found out that in fact he had another, worse disease that the docs wanted to keep him from knowing about till he was "better." That disease is the one he is suffering from now, again rare and incurable -- the only famous person to die of it is Carl Sagan. To cut a long story short, a bone marrow transplant followed, and my lovely guy is doing really well except for the fact that he is in the downstairs bedroom coughing his guts out.
Marriage is the subject. And how married I am. I wish I could find words to explain it. How his body feels like it's mine. How I wish that we could have issues to deal with like infidelity and boredom. Those problems would be so much easier to contend with than whether he's going to live or not. How weird it is to lie beside someone, even if they're starting to resemble Jerry Lewis because of Prednisone excess, and love them so much and worry that maybe this time next year all you'll be left with is your memories.
When he was first in a coma, I used to gaze at his body, running my eyes over it like a pornographer, or at least a theater director -- his big dancer's thighs, his newly buff biceps, his prematurely gray but refusing-to-recede hairline, his fit body lying inert in a short, paisley-sprigged shift, a wheezing ventilator clapped over his once-sensual lips. I would try to find some part of him that was not be-plasticked or be-hosed, usually his ear or his foot, and I would caress it and kiss it, yes, I would.
Now he's gone from underweight to overweight, his body betraying him over and over again. He's still bitchin' handsome and sexy and swell, but he's tired of being so sick.
My husband is sick enough to die. I haven't had sex in over two years. But he is my partner. He is my love, my life. There is nothing more important to me than this man. I would give anything, anything, to have him well. We want to live together for as long as we've got. By the sea. With coffee and newspapers -- and maybe some sex. That's what marriage is to me.
-- Susan Duligal
Reformed runaway bride
It doesn't look good when someone gives you a copy of "Runaway Bride" as a wedding gift. It's even worse when you acknowledge that there may be good reason for it.
I was a runaway bride -- twice. Twice I had been engaged, only to break it off and run for the hills as my wedding day approached.
But now, in my mid-30s, I was beginning to hear the ticking of the bio-clock. Even more than that, I was tired of dating. I wanted to share real intimacy. I wanted to be a team of two, both pulling in the same direction, working at a life together. I wanted to be half of a couple. I wanted a family.
I thought I had found it with Rick. He was older than me, the kind of wine-you-and-dine-you boyfriend who was so different from the "Can we go dutch?" boyfriends -- and fiancés -- I had been with in the past. I was swept off my feet, excited, giddy to see what the next chapter would bring.
But there was that other aspect, the one that screamed, "Run!" -- just like before.
I started thinking with my head, realizing that here was a man who'd been married three times before, who had a child he hadn't seen in years, who didn't really care for the fact that my best friends were my mother, sister and cousins.
We broke up, and three weeks later, I met Rich. (Note: If you're going to date men with very similar names, prepare him and yourself for the inevitability that your family will invariably call him by the wrong one.)
The funny thing is, Rich really was not what I was looking for. I was into nerdy intellectuals; he was a beefy factory worker, a former G.I. who said "I seen" a lot.
But every time I was with him, even if we were just chopping tomatoes for salsa, I was laughing and relaxed. Nothing said, "Run!" Yet.
The day we rehearsed our wedding, I found myself frozen to the floor when it came time to walk down the aisle. I asked everyone for a moment, and then took Rich aside. He had been standing off next to the altar, and I couldn't see him from my vantage point at the back of the chapel.
Once we were all back in position, I saw his big silly grin, and this time, I wanted to run again -- straight into his arms.
That was three years ago. We're still laughing and relaxed, he doesn't say "I seen" anymore, he's a stay-at-home dad and a full-time college student. We're expecting our second child in May.
-- Annie Cieslukowski
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We want to make you a part of this series. What is the state of your union? Did you find the one and never look back, or has finding lasting love been a marathon of trial and error? Did you have a fairy-tale wedding only to watch things crumble once the reception was over, or have you glided along in marital bliss since Day One? We want to hear your stories of joy, romance, heartbreak and pain. After all, partnership, as we all know, is a complex concoction of all of those things. (Please remember: Any writing submitted becomes the property of Salon if we publish it. We reserve the right to edit submissions, and cannot reply to every writer. Interested contributors should send their stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.)